The immense role of national and ethnic diaspora in driving global innovation


For over a decade I have been working with various facets of the idea of Global Innovation Networks: connections around the world that facilitate new endeavors.

Innovation always stems from diverse connections between ideas and people. Bringing in different viewpoints from around the world necessarily provides more opportunities for the new. Moreover, in the many stages of the innovation process there are almost certainly points where resources or capabilities from other countries can create better outcomes.

In my travels I have often seen how national and ethnic diaspora have been at the heart of the connections between nations. The TiE network began in Silicon Valley as The Indus Entrepreneurs, with innovators from the Indian subcontinent creating an organization that is now well and truly global, facilitating connections not just between Indians but also people of any nationality.

Source: The Economist

Australians are inveterate travellers, and wherever they go they integrate well into their local community as well as maintaining ties with home. Name a nation, and you will find their sons and daughters far and wide, connecting deeply both where they are and where they have been.

This goes exactly to the point I made in my post Entrepreneurial migration: It’s not brain drain, it’s global network formation. Diaspora are not a loss to their home community, but stretch its reach to enable innovation and possibilities that simply would not happen otherwise.

This week the Economist has a leader and feature on what they rightly call The magic of diaspora.

The feature notes:

The diaspora networks have three lucrative virtues. First, they speed the flow of information across borders: a Chinese businessman in South Africa who sees a demand for plastic vuvuzelas will quickly inform his cousin who runs a factory in China.

Second, they foster trust. That Chinese factory-owner will believe what his cousin tells him, and act on it fast, perhaps sealing a deal worth millions with a single conversation on Skype.

Third, and most important, diasporas create connections that help people with good ideas collaborate with each other, both within and across ethnicities.

These networks are particularly valuable for innovation:

The creativity of migrants is enhanced by their ability to enroll collaborators both far-off and nearby. In Silicon Valley, more than half of Chinese and Indian scientists and engineers share tips about technology or business opportunities with people in their home countries, according to AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California, Berkeley. A study by the Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank, found that 84% of returning Indian entrepreneurs maintain at least monthly contact with family and friends in America, and 66% are in contact at least that often with former colleagues. For entrepreneurs who return to China, the figures are 81% and 55%.

Science is improved:

A study in 2011 by the Royal Society found that cross-border scientific collaboration is growing more common, that it disproportionately involves scientists with diaspora ties and that it appears to lead to better science (using the frequency with which research is cited as a rough measure).

And of course the key driver of the massively enhanced value of diasporas is improved communication:

The “new type of hyperconnectivity” that enables such projects is fundamental to today’s networked diasporas, according to Carlo Dade, of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, a think-tank. “Migrants are now connected instantaneously, continuously, dynamically and intimately to their communities of origin…This is a fundamental and profound break from the past eras of migration.” That break explains why diasporas, always marginalised in the flat-map world of national territories, find themselves in the thick of things as the world becomes networked.

People who are connected by family, ethnicity, or nationality, or even more importantly have worked together before, know and trust each other. Connecting with new people around the world virtually does not engender immediate trust. However if people you trust go to where you are trying to connect, you have immediate access.

Let us celebrate diaspora and the wonderful combination of local and global connection they bring. Let our kin travel, and let us welcome the kin of others.